Last line of defense

PAUL SMITHS – Sometimes watercraft can carry unwanted passengers.

No one invites variable-leaf milfoil or water chestnut on the family vacation, but they can come along for the ride. The problem is, sometimes those organisms stay behind and take up residence, causing issues for local flora and fauna. That’s where watershed stewards come in.

Last week, a few dozen people from across New York state visited Paul Smith’s College to attend the annual watershed steward training course.

The stewards-in-training came from as far as the Buffalo area. After taking the course, they’ll be stationed at boat launches throughout the state, where they’ll inspect all manner of watercraft and educate water-bound visitors on the best ways to protect waterways from invasive species, which can wreak havoc on an ecosystem.

The workshops began on the shores of Upper St. Regis Lake in 2000 as a collaboration between the college and the St. Regis Property Owners Association. The Watershed Steward Program is the educational arm of the Adirondack Watershed Institute, which monitors and strives to control the spread of invasive species in the Adirondack Park.

The Adirondack Watershed Institute’s Assistant Director, Kathleen Wiley, explained that just because an organism isn’t native doesn’t mean it’s invasive. Invasive species are those that can harm the local environment, economy or health of those using the area.

“In our case, you’re talking about something like Eurasian watermilfoil that comes in and completely clogs out the lake so you can’t swim, you can’t water ski and your property values go down,” Wiley said.

This year, 33 watershed stewards took to boat launches in the Adirondacks. They aren’t there to harass visitors – on the contrary, they work to protect the recreational integrity of the region.

“For the most part, the interactions are between one and three minutes,” said Watershed Steward Regional Supervisor Jackie McCabe. “We try to keep it as short as possible because the boaters are trying to get on the water and do their activities for the day.”

McCabe said washing a boat with high-pressured water of at least 140 degrees, letting it drain and drying it off after use is the best way to remove unwanted organisms.

There are also more intense cleaning regulations in place at some high-traffic waterbodies. At Lake George, there are currently six inspection and decontamination stations. Each boater is issued a sticker there, and if the sticker is broken, the boat must be decontaminated before entering the water.

“Lake George is what we call a spread vector,” McCabe said. “There are a few lakes in and around the Adirondacks that serve as those. They are really big lakes that get high boat traffic, and they also have aquatic invasive species, so those are the ones that we’re really pertinent about making sure the boats are cleaned, drained and dried, because if something is coming out of those lakes, they go so many other places within the Park.”

Lake Champlain, Lake George, Lake Placid and Saratoga Lake are all included on the spread vector list. At other boat launches, inspections are still performed but they aren’t quite as intense.

On the Paul Smith’s Great Lawn last Wednesday, several forms of watercraft were laid out so workshop attendees could role play various boat inspections.

One trainee, Megan Johnson, demonstrated a typical interaction between a watershed steward and a boater. Johnson is a geology major at SUNY New Paltz and will be a lake steward at Saratoga Lake this summer.

Johnson first introduced herself as a watershed steward and explained that she just wanted to take a quick look at the boat to make sure there were no invasive stowaways on board. She tipped the canoe over and inspected its bottom, carefully scanning it for any signs of unwanted species.

After a couple of questions regarding the prior whereabouts of the boat and a brief lesson on how to properly clean it, Johnson was finished.

The inspection only took a minute, but it is the last line of defense against the spread of invasive species.

There are 11 aquatic species of concern the stewards check for. Ten of those have been found in nearby Lake Champlain while many other waterbodies, like Raquette Pond or Lake Colby, only contain one known invasive species.

Lake Champlain is the most affected waterbody in the region, followed by Lake George. Some species, like Eurasian watermilfoil, have effectively spread to almost all of the Adirondacks’ largest lakes and ponds. Others, like yellow floating heart, haven’t spread past Lake Champlain, and the stewards want to make sure they don’t.

“I think the biggest challenge with our program really is communicating the issue with the boaters,” McCabe said. “Our program is very education- and outreach-oriented, and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful. We really have to make sure the boaters are aware of the issue, and how they can prevent things from spreading to other lakes.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.